What Does a Dog See in Its Mind When You Say 'Ball'?

Scientists cite pups' 'referential understanding,' with mental images hinting at deeper grasp of language
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Mar 29, 2024 8:09 AM CDT
How Much Does Fido Get Beyond 'Sit'? Scientists Weigh In
A dog looks at his ball at City Park, in Budapest, Hungary, on Wednesday.   (AP Photo/Denes Erdos)

Many dog owners believe their pets understand and respond not only to commands such as "sit" and "stay," but also to words referring to their favorite objects. "Bring me your ball" will often result in exactly that. But science has had trouble determining whether dogs and other animals activate a mental image in their minds when they hear the name of an object—something that would suggest a deeper grasp of language, similar to humans. A new study in Hungary has found that beyond being able to respond to commands like "roll over," dogs can learn to associate words with specific objects—a relationship with language called referential understanding that had been unproven in dogs, per the AP.

  • The experiment: The peer-reviewed study out of Eotvos Lorand University in Budapest was published last Friday in the science journal Current Biology. It involved 18 dogs and a noninvasive EEG procedure using electrodes attached to dogs' heads to measure brain activity and register brain waves. Dog owners participating in the study would play an audio clip in which they said the name of their dog's toy—like "ball" or "Frisbee"—and then show the dog an object. The researchers measured the dogs' brain activity when the object in the recording matched the object displayed, and when it differed.

  • Hypothesis: "We expected that if a dog really understands the meaning of the object's word, it will expect to see that object. And if the owner shows a different one, there will be a so-called surprise reaction in the brain," said Marianna Boros, a cognitive neuroscientist and study co-author. "And this is exactly what we found."
  • Results: The study found a different brain pattern when the dogs were shown an object that matched the word, compared to when it didn't—suggesting they conjured a mental image of an object based on hearing the word for it.
  • Dogs vs. other animals: Lilla Magyari, also a cognitive neuroscientist and study co-author, said that while other animals have been shown to have some degree of referential understanding, those animals have typically been highly trained to do so. In dogs, she said, the findings show that such capacities appear to be inborn and require no special training or talent.
  • Skepticism: While the study has received praise, some experts have expressed doubts about its findings. Arizona State University behavioral scientist Clive Wynne said on Facebook that he believes all the study shows is that dogs respond to stimuli—but that they don't actually understand the meaning of specific words. More here.
(More dogs stories.)

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